The Monday vote represents a hard-fought — if conditional — victory for Castilleja. Once it completes the new buildings, it will be allowed to immediately raise its enrollment from the current level of 422 to 450. While that is well shy of the 540 that Castilleja requested in its conditional use permit application, the council's approval creates a path for getting to that higher level. It would require Castilleja to create an aggressive transportation-demand management plan that keeps traffic at its current levels. It would also require the school to prohibit juniors from driving and to ensure that at least 40% of its student population lives within 5 miles of the Castilleja's campus at 1310 Bryant St.
In approving the project, council members repeatedly alluded to its tortuous and acrimonious journey through the planning process. Opponents of the project often cited the school's history of failing to abide with the enrollment cap spelled out in its existing conditional use permit, a violation that prompted the city to issue a $265,000 fine against Castilleja in 2013 and to require a gradual reduction in enrollment. They also argued that the reconstruction project runs afoul of zoning rules and that Castilleja's proposed underground garage is out of place in the single-family neighborhood.
Council member Greer Stone characterized the council's approval of the project, which gives Castilleja most of what it asked for but attaches conditions to ensure that its impact on the neighborhood is contained, as a compromise between the school and its critics.
"There has been a breakdown in trust," Stone said. "This motion allows that trust to hopefully be rebuilt.
"It will allow Castilleja to ultimately get to 540 but will provide neighbors and residents the ability to have a seat at the table, to have a voice and actually have some power to work with the city to be able to provide that feedback."
Castilleja has also agreed to sign a joint statement with the city stating its intention to ultimately set the limit at 540.
But in a concession to the school's critics, the council also agreed to reduce the number of events that Castilleja would be allowed to hold every year. While the school has historically held more than 90 special events — those with 50 or more attendees — per year. The council lowered the number to 50 special events and five major events, with 500 or more participants, consistent with the recommendation of the city's planning commission.
The council also added several new conditions to appease residents' concerns that traffic and parking problems would increase as enrollment increases. Mayor Pat Burt proposed banning juniors from driving to the school, a condition that his colleagues supported. The new rule will allow five exemptions for special circumstances.
"I think with bicycles and particularly e-bicycles, there's no reason why a student within 5 miles or so shouldn't be able to bike to school," Burt said.
Burt also successfully advocated for requiring Castilleja to ensure that at least 40% of its students live within 5 miles of the campus, a move designed to both increase the school's benefit to the local community and to prevent new traffic problems.
Another condition, which was pitched by council member Tom DuBois, creates a three-person committee of neighborhood residents that will review Castilleja's transportation-demand programs and help determine whether the school's traffic-reduction programs warrant changes in enrollment levels or the number of authorized events.
Supporters of Castilleja cheered the council's Monday decision.
"I am ecstatic that we are going to be able to enroll more students," Nanci Kauffman, head of school at Castilleja, told the Weekly after the hearing. "This is about the future of the school."
Kauffman said the council's decision will enable Castilleja to stay in Palo Alto, to remain financially viable and to educate more girls.
Others were less thrilled. Members of the group Preserve Neighborhood Quality of Life Now said they were disappointed about some of the conditions in the approval. The council has agreed, for example, to allow Castilleja to use its existing traffic consultant to verify its traffic volumes rather than requiring an affirmation from an independent consultant. Andie Reed, founder of PNQL Now, said this is a problem. The council, she said, deferred too much in Castilleja's attorney in crafting the conditions around transportation-demand management (TDM), which are key to its enrollment plan.
"It's all about the TDM and whether they can get enrollment increases based on that," Reed said. "You can't use the school's traffic consultant."
She also suggested that the council should have simply set the number of special events at 50 per year without creating an avenue for increasing this number through a recommendation from the new neighborhood committee. But Hank Sousa, also a member of the neighborhood group, called the council's prohibition on juniors driving a "modest victory" and took some solace in the fact that the enrollment levels will not exceed 450 for a while.
Council member Eric Filseth, like most of his colleagues, said that it was time to move the project along.
"I think if someone came to us and said, 'I just acquired this many acres in the middle of Old Palo Alto and I want to put a school there,' we'd probably turn them down," Filseth said. "But the reality is that this is not the situation here. Castilleja has been in the community for a century or more. There's a lot of people in town who use it and like it, and we are an education town not just a public education town."
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